Next career step

#101: Preparing for a career after your PhD or Postdoc (with Tina Persson)

With a PhD or a Postdoc in your bag, you’ve got many options for your career: You can stay on the academic path, or look for a job in the private or public sector. Many PhD candidates and Postdocs find it hard to make up their mind and identify what their next career step should be. And even once that’s decided, there are a few things you should know about the job hunting game inside and outside of academia. We asked career advisor and leadership coach Tina Persson (PhD) for her advice for the transition periodespecially when looking for a job in the industry. She has shared candid tips, personal experiences from her own career, and why it’s good to trust yourself in this process. 

Paper Writing Academy: Join our digital programme and write your journal paper in 8 weeks
Click here for more information about Paper Writing Academy

Many of you who are working on a PhD or in a Postdoc position dream about a lucrative and rewarding career to finally make all the struggles and hardships worthwhile. While some think about staying in academia because it’s a well-known environment and they love to do research, others are attracted by professions in the public or private sector. 

From numerous discussions with PhD candidates and Postdocs, I know that for many of you, it’s a struggle to find the right career and in general, make the transition from PhD or Postdoc into a career. It’s never easy!

While I know a great deal about getting an academic career and help applicants to land a permanent academic position—I’m aware that  not everyone completing a PhD will later work in permanent positions at a higher education institution. So looking for outsider expertise is needed to find out what other career options you’ve got. 

For this reason, I’ve invited a specialist regarding the transition from academia to industry: Our colleague and good friend, Tina Persson is an expert when it comes to young academics heading for a job in the private sector. She has a PhD from Lunch University in Sweden, and did her Postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen, Germany. She’s the founder of Passage2Pro, a consultancy providing career advice to folks like you. She’s also working as a leadership coach, and she created the podcast PhD Carrier Stories, which I find super entertaining and very informative.

Let’s get started with the interview with Tina: 

Bärbel: Welcome, Tina, thank you for taking the time to talk to me and giving insights into what young researchers, PhD candidates, and Postdocs would need to do to get a smooth career start. Before we dive right into this interesting question, let us briefly talk about your experiences as a PhD candidate in Lund, Sweden, and as a Postdoc at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, Germany. What do you remember from that time? What are the memories that stick out?

Tina: What I remember is that I had a lot of fun, and I was working with great people. We had parties and we spent much of our spare time together. I worked very hard in the lab, but I was never really worried that I was not going to get the PhD degree. I always had a mindset of: I’ll sort it out somehow, I will manage! So I remember mostly the happy days. I might have forgotten all the struggles. So what I tell every young researcher today is: Enjoy it! 

Bärbel: That is very encouraging to hear! 

Don’t panic when feeling uncertain about your career!

Bärbel: When I talk to PhD candidates and Postdocs about their career aspirations, they are often uncertain. If I have a group of 20 young researchers, there’s probably one who says upfront “I want to be a professor”, and two or three know they want a job in the industry. The rest are really unsure on what they want to do when their contract ends, and that makes them worry a lot. Is this also your experience? And what advice would you give them?

Tina: My first tip—and this is really the $10 million tip—is: Don’t panic! You will sort it out! 

Many researchers—and people in general—panic in such situations. I think, somehow, that society or the research environment has put so much pressure on people. So they think they are not allowed to say: “You know what? I’m not really sure what I want to do as a next career step. But it’s okay, I will figure it out!” My advice: Ignore the people who put pressure on you. If you get remarks like “Oh my God, you have done a PhD, and you still don’t know what you want in your career?” ignore them!

It is okay to not know. You have to be in that situation for a while in order to figure out what you really want. So tell them “Yes I don’t know, but isn’t that fantastic? Because I have so many doors to open up now. I have so many opportunities!” So lean back, not knowing is normal. If you don’t take the time to figure out what you want, you’ll easily enter one job after the other, and you are never really happy and satisfied.

I have written about this in my book “The PhD Career Coaching Guide.” You can download that chapter for free. It’s about resilience.

So, my first advice is: A normal transition from academia to industry needs about three months to a year, and it’s a learning process. It’s a process about you identifying what you like and don’t like.

Figure out what you want! 

Bärbel: This is good to know: It will take time to figure it out, and you have to allow yourself to take the time, right? And it’ll probably not be the easiest period in your life, but what you say, Tina, is: Trust yourself. You’ll find out what suits you best! 

Let’s assume I am a PhD candidate or a Postdoc, and I really have no clue what I will do as a next career step. What would you suggest I do? How can I make up my mind? Could you give a few further hints about what would help our early-career researchers to take the first step and figure out which career they want?  

Tina: First, start thinking about what you actually like. Do I like to travel, and does that have to be part of my job? Do I want to be part of a team, or do I like to work on my own? As I mentioned at the start, I liked my PhD because there was a lot of partying going on. I loved that. Maybe that is because I like to be social, I like being among fun people. That is important to me. 

Second, reflect on the experiences in your PhD and Postdoc years. That can tell you a lot. Did you like working in the lab for yourself? Or were you happier when you could meet and connect with other people? Did you like managing your research or projects? Maybe it is more administration and finance you are interested in? Or are you super creative and you enjoyed writing or coming up with new ideas? 

If I can take myself as an example: From my background and knowledge, I could be a medical writer. But I would be deadly bored in that job after two weeks because I don’t like to write. So start to identify those things. 

Bärbel: So it’s really important to start reflecting on what you like and what you don’t like, right?

Tina: Yes. And then the next thing that you might think about is location. 

Find out where in the world you want to do which job!

Tina: With a PhD or Postdoc behind you, you’ll enter a global job market. But if you kept it entirely open, that would mean you are very unfocused in your job search. So try to narrow down your location preference.

Are you living in the United States and you’re going to stay in the United States? Well fine, then dig down further. I have clients who tell me they want to stay in Europe. “Great,” I say, “that’s 44 different countries—where do you want to go?” And, if you pick one, let’s say it’s France, then there are further practical issues as well. How well do you speak the language, or will you get a work permit there? Do you want to live in a big or small city? How is it with your family? Are you going to bring your family with you?

I have often experienced that people managed to identify their preferences and their dream job, but then they start searching in the wrong region. They looked for their dream job in a certain region in Sweden where I’m living. It’s just that the kind of companies they were looking for don’t exist in that region. So it’s a waste of time. You’ve got to look for the right job at the right place. 

At that stage, you need a more coherent strategy—one that brings it all together. In my coaching, that’s part of my hidden job strategy, because that is a strategy to learn. And when you start to organise these things, then it gets much easier to figure out in what direction you should look.

Bärbel: Let me just sum up what you said: Start with your preferences, what you like, and then think about the part of the world you’d like to live in and see if the jobs you are looking for are available there. So it’s literally like you pick a few elements at the beginning that are really, really important to you, and then you build it up until the picture of what you want is clear, right?

Tina: Yes. And when you have figured it out and you know—“I’ll go to Berlin, I’m going to work with data science”—this is the point where coaching could come in. This is where I would suggest to an applicant: “Why don’t you start to connect with people who work as data scientists in Berlin? They can mentor you.” Now, you’re ready to have a mentor. So many researchers, I think, do it the other way around. They don’t know what they want, and tend to ask for advice from mentors. And then, they have too many mentors. But they still can’t figure it out.

Bärbel: I think that’s an important point. You say a coach or mentor is helpful in the job search, but it’s you who has to figure out what you want, that is your task. This is the question you have to answer, and of course, consider your family, or your partner. But you can’t just follow all the advice of parents, teachers, mentors, supervisors, everyone around you. At the end of the day, you can’t escape confronting yourself and figuring out what you want. I think that’s important to emphasise.

Send 100 applications to get one job offer

Bärbel: Let’s focus a bit on the application process itself now. Let’s assume, someone has figured out what they want and they are ready to send out job applications. In my experience, PhDs and Postdocs are often hesitant when it comes to sending out their first job applications. They ultimately underestimate the number of applications they have to send to be successful.

I occasionally hear of candidates who are lucky and score a job after sending just 1-2 job applications. But these are exceptions. What are your thoughts? How many applications does one have to send to receive the first invitation to an interview? 

Tina: If you get a job with the first application you sent, that is sheer luck! I call that luck! That’s the jackpot, but how high is the chance that you’ll get that? Slim, right?

So I would say, apply for 20 jobs and see what happens. And then we can talk! This is also what I tell my clients. And it might not be so comfortable to hear this, but it’s almost like you have to get rejected at the beginning of your job search. That is part of the journey. It will hurt, but it’s the only way you’ll get better. 

And if you have been rejected for all 20 jobs, then something might be wrong with your CV or with your strategy. Then you have to take a step back and check-in with yourself one more time.

After those first rejections, get rest, get feedback, and improve. At that point, a career coach can really help because they can independently look at your application and give advice on how to move forward.

Bärbel: I’ll have to jump in here, Tina, 20 applications—that will probably be a surprising number for our audience. 

Tina: My statistics, Bärbel, are the following: For the corporate job search, if you send 100 applications, you get invited to ten interviews, and you get one job. What’s your experience?

Bärbel: Well, in most scientific fields you’d scramble to get 100 applications together, though the amount of job openings varies in the different scientific fields and depends on the career stage as well. 

But I share your experience that you need to send many applications: I call it the job-seeking pyramid—it’s very broad at the bottom when you start out, and narrows in towards the top at the end. I tell my job-candidates: You’ll probably read 200 job advertisements, you’ll send 30-40 applications, you’ll end up with two or three invitations to interviews, and you’ll get one offer for an academic position in the end.

Tina: We are really reconfirming each other’s experiences here. So both from the corporate side and from the academic field, you just have to broaden your scope at the very beginning and do a lot of groundwork to actually harvest a few interviews and secure a good job in the end.

And here’s the next remark my clients usually make: 100 applications? But there are not that many open jobs in my field? So, to put that in perspective, this number—for the corporate side—includes unsolicited applications, networking applications, and hidden jobs that are not advertised. And then you can very well come up to 100 applications. You send applications strategically to key people at the companies you want to work for. 

And I think that many, many PhDs and Postdocs underestimate this networking strategy and the importance of communication.

Get better with every rejection you get

Bärbel: These are great insights that you share, Tina. I just want to come back to something you said a bit earlier. You need some rejections in your job-search, because this is what makes you a better applicant next time. You said the best way to learn this is by having your own—sometimes negative—experiences, right?

Tina: Yes, absolutely, it’s like you need to get through the first rejections. And if I put it that way, even though both career coaches and advisors can support you, the best training you get is your own life.

Bärbel: I often find it hard to communicate this to my job applicants. To make them aware of how much they can learn and how much more professional they get with every single interview they attend. I have observed that many times: The first interview of a candidate is crap. Then they move on, and after a few nasty experiences, they learn to enjoy the interview process. Then after doing four, five interviews, bang! They nail it and get an offer. 

Don’t say ‘yes’ to every job—trust your feelings! 

Tina: I’ve got to share a story from a friend of mine who is very experienced in the job market. She called me and said, “I’ve just been through the most funny interview in my life. After the first 5 minutes, I heard myself—as a candidate—saying You know what, thank you for inviting me. But this job is not for me!” Then she asked me, “Tina, what do you think, was that good or bad?”

Well, I told her, this is how interviewing goes. It’s not only the company looking at you, it’s also about how you think and feel about working for them. If you realise in an interview that you don’t like the company, you’ve got to be honest with yourself and admit that this is not the place for you. 

Bärbel: I can totally relate to that. When I was searching for staff positions at European universities, I had an interview and the moment I set foot into that Department I knew I didn’t want to work there. There was something that put me off immediately. I don’t know, it was the entire atmosphere, the smell, the carpet, the colour of the doors, whatever. 

If there is something that puts you off during the interview, be honest with yourself. An interview really is testing both sides. But sometimes, of course, as an applicant, you’re so eager to land a job that you’re afraid to admit this. You think you have to say yes, just to get a job. 

Tina: You think you have to say yes, but, please don’t. I share the same experience: I can tell you when I was afraid to be unemployed, I said ‘yes’ to do a job that my stomach said ‘no’ to. I said ‘yes’ because I was scared. And that was a mistake. One year later, I was unemployed again. 

So my advice for everyone in the job search: Listen a little bit to what your feelings are saying. When you go for the interview, how do you feel about it?

Bärbel: I think that’s super good advice: Listen to your little inner voice. Is it saying “Yeah, super chance, I’ll jump on it?” Or does your flight instinct set in and you’d rather never come back to the place of your interview.

Celebrate every interview! 

Tina: Again, this is interviewing: it’s not only about the company looking at me, it’s also about my feelings. Do I want to work for them? But when you are under pressure because your contract ends soon or has ended already, you experience turning down a position as a failure—you see it as if you have failed. Instead of saying: “Wow, I was invited for an interview! I’m gonna celebrate and learn as much as I can in this process.” That is the mindset that you should have as an applicant. 

Bärbel: Fabulous. I couldn’t agree more: Securing an interview is a major success along the path to getting a job.

Prepare early for the job hunt!

Bärbel: Now let’s assume a candidate has made up their mind on what job to look for. And they are in the final months of their PhD or Postdoc contract, and want to get ready for the job market. What is the bread & butter, so to speak—the essentials of being ready for the job market? What should one prepare?

Tina: When you have a few months left in your PhD or Postdoc, that’s when you should start sending applications, definitely. But let me be clear: I think you should start earlier, but with different activities. So in your last year, let’s say, maybe listen to the PhD career stories podcast, maybe go to career fairs, check-in with a career advisor, read books about career planning, and figure out your strategy a little bit.

The final months, that’s the time when you should actually start to nail down your résumé. So you have some kind of general résumé that is not tailored to any job. In the end, you should have a one-page application and a two-page application, that you can adapt for different jobs.

Bärbel: One second, I know this is confusing for many applicants: There’s one clear difference between applications for corporate jobs and for academic jobs. For the industry résumé, you prepare a short 1-2 page summary of your experiences and expertise (see this podcast episode Why companies ignore your Resume). Whereas the academic CV gives a full record of your experiences and achievements, and is therefore much more comprehensive and longer (for advice on setting up an academic CV, see blogpost no. 31: Six smart strategies for a strong Academic CV and no. 33: Why a great academic CV is a work-in-progress!)

Tina: Oh yes, clearly. I think my academic CV was about 60 pages long—research agenda, teaching portfolio, publications, all included. So be aware of which sector you are applying to. 

And then you should make sure to have a LinkedIn profile. And start connecting with people. This is also the moment when you need to get in touch with people in your network that might be helpful. Get out there and spread the word that you are looking for a job, and send out applications. 

Don’t be afraid to decline an offer

Bärbel: That brings me to another observation: Researchers often seem to think that everything has to be kept top secret and if they apply, then maybe this or that person might hear about it and that will negatively affect them in the future. So they often hesitate to send out more applications, and instead wait for that one special opening to go up one day. 

Tina: Sounds familiar: Does it affect my chances in the future if this committee has rejected me or if that institute knows I am looking for a job? No, I say! Don’t be afraid of that, really. Just start out, even if it’s not 100% what you are looking for! Gain experiences and learn from them.

And then you may worry, “But what if I get that job?” Well, that’s good! Then you can make a decision. Just because they offer you a job doesn’t mean you have to take it.

Or you think: “But what if I get two jobs, three jobs?” Well, that’s great I say! Now, you have a choice. 

What’s the worst thing that can happen? You may have to decline an offer. And that’s not the end of the world, you know.

Bärbel: I’ve got to repeat it because I think this is such great advice: You can get a job offer, but that doesn’t mean you have to take it.

Make a decision and be happy with it!

Tina: When you get an offer, you always have a choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Certainly, you have to check the details of the offer and first of all, get the contract and see what exactly is written there. And then take your time and make a decision. And Bärbel, I know, there are candidates who are afraid to say ‘no’, because they are afraid they will regret it, and then they call me as their coach for advice. 

And I have to tell them: “This is your choice. Now it’s time for you to sit down and look inside. What is the plus side to this job, and what are the negative aspects? Then you evaluate it. And then you make a decision.” That’s it, don’t look back. Once you make a decision, be happy with it. And when you wake up the next day, it’s a new morning. Don’t look back.

Bärbel: That’s so good to hear from you, and it might take away a bit of the pressure: No one knows whether a decision you make now is the best choice ten years down the line. But on the day you make that decision, it is the best choice. Otherwise, you wouldn’t make it. That’s it. Once more, it is about being confident and trusting your abilities. 

Tina: Absolutely! I mean, you made it through your PhD. You made it through a first or second Postdoc. You will make it through the next career step. This is the strength of being a PhD. You have that toughness and persistence, and these are super critical and very positive abilities in the job search. You are a trained scientist, wonderful! 

Bärbel: Thank you Tina for all the great advice you provided here. I think we managed very well to outline the overall strategy of the job hunt after completing your PhD or even after the Postdoc years. Good luck to you guys out there! Now it’s up to you to start with the first step! 

About Tina Persson:  

Tina Persson (PhD), Career Coach

Tina is a career and leadership coach, author, and entrepreneur whose creativity, confidence, and tenacity have earned her a reputation as a dynamic leader. She is also a public speaker, facilitating seminars and workshops to PhD professionals and early researchers alike, supporting them in their career development. As a businesswoman, she is founder of Passage2pro AB and Aptahem AB (a biotech start-up company), is featured in over 20 scientific publications, is the inventor of 2 scientific patents, and is the host of the PhD Career Stories podcast. 

After spending nearly two decades in academia, Tina decided to enter the staffing industry, where she gained eight years of expertise working as a Recruiter and Talent Sourcer. Combining her multifaceted experience, she is adept at empowering researchers to pave their way to a smooth transition from the academic world to a fulfilling career beyond academia.

Relevant resources:

More information:

Do you want to apply for an academic job?
If so, please sign up to receive our free guides.

Photo by Marten Bjork at unsplash.com

© 2021 Tress Academic